Out of Deep Waters: Evacuated students welcomed to Episcopal schools

September 16, 2005

It was back to basics as Episcopal schools in the South and across the country began taking in students evacuated from the destruction of Hurricane Katrina.

“I told the faculty that the number one goal is to make them feel safe,” said the Rev. Deacon Frances “Boo” Kay, head of the Bishop Noland Episcopal Day School in Lake Charles, Louisiana. “The number two goal is just to love them and the number three goal behind all that is to teach them what you know.”

As many as 3,000 students were affected by the storm, according to the Rev. Peter Cheney, executive director of the National Association of Episcopal Schools.

Students from schools shut down by Katrina have spread all over the country as their parents sought shelter with family and friends. Southern schools that could still operate in Katrina’s wake immediately began to get inquiries from parents of students whose schools were destroyed or closed. Students often came with no records, no supplies, and often no clothes beyond those they wore.

Each school dealt with the influx of displaced students in slightly different ways but some common themes emerged. Faculty and staff scrambled to rearrange physical space and class sections. Parents and students rallied to welcome the newcomers. Questions about tuition arose. Prayer lives deepened. Schools offered help to current families, staff, and newcomers to deal with the losses they’d suffered. The ministry of children and the love of God became obvious. And faculties and staffs, many of whom were dealing with their own losses and anxieties cause by Katrina, are exhausted.

“We already feel like it’s May instead of September,” said Ascension Day School Head of School Patrick Dickens.

Many students are tired, too. They are living in unfamiliar surroundings, often with extended family in houses suddenly stretched to welcome them. Seventy-five percent of the families of students at St. James Episcopal Day School in Baton Rouge have had someone move in with them. Children are excited about having cousins and friends living with them, Kay said, but sometimes it means “there’s not much bedtime routine or quiet time.”

Some schools hired new teachers, often displaced from other Episcopal schools, and added new classes in each grade. Other schools blended the new students into their existing structures.

Ascension Day School, a pre-kindergarten through eighth-grade school in Lafayette, Louisiana, (about 125 miles west of downtown New Orleans) has taken in about 115 students. It hired six new teachers, made some part-time positions full-time and created new sections in every grade from its two pre-kindergarten levels through fourth grade. Students in the fifth through eighth grade were absorbed into the various departments.

 “We were very creative with where we put new classrooms,” including using the choir room and even the vestry portion of the sacristy, Dickens said.

Enrollment at St. James in Baton Rouge, a school for pre-kindergarten through fifth grade, went from 302 to just more than 400. There are new classrooms in what used to be meeting rooms, part of the Sunday nursery rooms, Catechesis of the Good Shepherd rooms, the choir room and even the bride’s room.

In many cases where schools added new class sections those classes are made up entirely of evacuees, often taught by displaced teachers. Those schools, the heads said, found that keeping evacuees together often meant that students knew each other from other schools or areas, and had had the common experience of evacuation. “They had a common sense of purpose,” Dickens said.

Parents of current students pitched in to help find clothes, uniforms, and school supplies, and to connect with evacuees’ parents. For instance, parents at Episcopal Day School in Lake Charles (located about one hour from Beaumont, Texas, in southwestern Louisiana) bought book bags and supplies for incoming students, and helped with a swim party for the displaced families.

The number of students that could be taken in was a challenge to most schools. Ascension admitted students “not due to ability to pay but due to the ability to take them,” Dickens said.

Episcopal Day School’s Kay said the administration had to balance wanting to admit all students who asked for a spot with the school’s ability to absorb more students, and still “maintain the integrity of the program,” especially maintaining maximum class sizes. It’s that integrity, in part, that families expect for their tuition dollars, Kay said. Before Katrina hit, 294 children were enrolled in the school’s two-year-old through eighth-grade program before Katrina hit and the school took in 80 more students.

The issue of tuition arose early on. Most families had already paid tuition at schools that could no longer operate. Ascension waived all fees and asked families to pay fall tuition on a pro-rated basis if possible. Other schools are allowing parents to pay month to month. Some have waived all tuition. Schools made financial arrangements based on the pressing needs of the parents, the school and the schools the students left.

“Buildings we can take care or and supplies we can always find,” said the Rev. Dr. Michael Kuhn, head of the now-closed Trinity School in New Orleans. Kuhn’s school had 408 students enrolled in pre-kindergarten through eight grade and another 150 children in the Les Enfants pre-school. The question of having enough money to continue to pay the staff looms large.

“Our most valuable resource in both the church and the school is people,” he said. “I am concerned about retaining a good faculty.”
 That concern comes in part from that fact that most faculty members are middle-class people who do not always have the resources to wait out the rebuilding the way some parents of their students might, Kuhn and others said.

“I want to keep people employed,” Kuhn said.

The displacement and losses faced by families, faculties and staffs have changed the schools. Students continue to come and go each day as their families find housing and jobs. Schools’ populations change day by day and, some days, hour by hour. Administrations and teachers feel as if they are constantly restarting the school year, said Kay. Some of Kay’s students have already returned to their New Orleans homes.

St. James’ in Baton Rouge has had to face some facts about the “ministry that is being offered to us,” said the Rev. A.J. Heine, St. James’ chaplain.

“We really had to admit that Baton Rouge is a different place and that the disaster called us to be and do different things,” he said.
Kuhn, working out of an office at Episcopal High School in Baton Rouge where his two daughters have been taken in, is already thinking about the future of Episcopal and other independent schools in New Orleans. He said schools may have to consolidate services while they rebuild.

Most schools have brought in counselors and posted material on their websites to help people cope, a process that will go on for months and years. “The layers of suffering in all of this just go on and on,” said Heine.

Chapel services have been well-attended, reflecting people’s needs. The students of St. James write the prayers of the people for the Friday Holy Eucharist. “There are decidedly more pressing prayer needs and the prayers that the kids have offered reflect that,” said Heine.

In fact, Heine said, the children have often led the way at St. James. They have taken in the newcomers in a way that is a “wonderful example for the adults of Baton Rouge and elsewhere,” he said. “To see these kids usher one another back into normalcy is to see God’s grace working in us.”

For more information:

The National Association of Episcopal Schools (NAES) is posting information on schools’ status as it is received at http://www.episcopalschools.org/.

NAES has also developed a prayer list which can be found at http://www.episcopalschools.org/library.

The Bishop Noland Episcopal Day School in Lake Charles, Louisiana, has links on its website (http://www.episcopaldayschool.org/) to information about other Louisiana schools.